Jack Rickards: allotment gardener

Estimated reading time:13 minutes, 47 seconds

Everyone has a story. Goodbye to artist, thinker and champion allotment gardener Jack Rickards who is moving with his wife Lucy, also a painter and skilled potter, to Cornwall. Interview by Nicola Baird

Jack and Lucy Rickards at the Quill Street Allotment Association’s harvest supper 2018 where they were made Life Presidents. (c) Annie Monaghan for Islington Faces

“It will be lovely for drawing and painting and Lucy is going to be working with a potter,” says Jack Rickards with that lovely smile of his. After 32 years living off Blackstock Road, plus seasons of gardening know-how picked up and shared as Chair of the Gillespie Park allotments and later the Quill Street’s 20 allotments, Jack still overflows with optimism. The couple know they will miss Islington, but they have just celebrated their 60thwedding anniversary and are looking forward to another new start close to their Cornish-based son, not far from where Lucy spent her teenage years.

“We’re going to an 1830s fishermen cottage right down by the quay – it’ll be lovely going to the 15thcentury pub over the road and there are folk concerts and carol concerts right by our house,” says Jack who plans to use the courtyard garden to concentrate on herbs so Lucy can look out of the kitchen window and use what I grow. I normally grow mint and sage, but I’d like to try growing coriander and dill too.”

>FOLLOW ISLINGTON FACES by email: a new interview is published every week.

Islington Faces is celebrating Jack and Lucy in this interview thanks to the suggestion of the Quill Street Allotment Association. At the Allotment Association’s recent Harvest Supper in Gillespie Park, chair Annie Monaghan and members awarded them their highest accolade – Life Presidency of the Allotment Association. It’s well deserved. Jack is a terrific grower. He’s highly intelligent, a gifted painter and has also been an art history teacher. During the interview Jack quotes French and Italian, discusses the work of Jane Jacobs and asks after my family. He is great at surprises, explaining that he went to the country’s first comprehensive school and then trying to convince me that he’s not green-fingered.

Lucy is a fantastic cook putting their produce to good use and cooking and baking for allotment events.

Islington Faces meets this lovely couple, both in their 80s, in their dining room – Jack sitting on a wooden stool, and Lucy in a comfy chair with a view of the Welsh dresser where many of her handmade plates are displayed. The room is full of books and a large bunch of heavenly scented flowers from Miss Pem (at 223 Blackstock Road), bought by Jack to celebrate Lucy’s birthday.

Jack Rickards has been made Life President of Quill Street allotments. Chair Anne Monaghan says: Jack has done so much for the allotment gardens over the years and is such a well-known face to the community surrounding the gardens too and has been such an ambassador for the allotments. (c) islington faces

So how did this couple, who had raised their three children in Newcastle while Jack taught at Newcastle upon Tyne polytechnic (now Northumbria university), end up in this corner of Islington? Jack explains: “I became Type 1 Diabetic, and insulin dependent but with wonderful NHS care in Newcastle and London I soon revived. I was granted a sabbatical year from Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic to study for an MA at Essex University, Colchester, on European illustrated magazines around 1900, which made us both fall back in love with central London.”

Deciding where to move was solved by their daughter who was studying at Middlesex University. “She was on a 19 bus and rang later to say, ‘I think I’ve seen the house you’d love, no one else would like it, but you’ll love it!’ It was next to a very busy flower shop and a stall out on to the pavement. I made an appointment and waited in the rain for an hour for the estate agent – having come 300 miles to meet him. The flower seller (Lil) came out and challenged me. She said ‘What are you loitering for?’ When I explained she gave me a big black umbrella. We moved in. It was lovely to live next to a flower shop but when Lil retired her niece took over the shop but then she discovered she was allergic to chrysanthemums, so couldn’t do the funeral flowers, so it was then sold. It is now a vet with very neighbourly staff,” says Jack.

Lucy Rickards is a skilled potter and painter who has spent much of her free time gardening on the Gillespie allotments and then Quill Street allotments. (c) Islington Faces

They bought the house in 1988 and soon Jack was exploring the area, often drawing in the newly open Gillespie Park, and expertly discovering all sorts of history about this little corner of Islington.

“I’d go to a tube station and I’d do a spiral walk to get to know the area. The spiral from Finsbury Park station took me to brand new, desert like Gillespie Park. The lovely warden, Ray, was there. I remember ash piles, some saplings and a plastic lined pond that looked so natural. I was sitting drawing, thinking we’ll never be able to afford to live in this area. That day a tiny man came up to me and said to me do you know where you are? He explained that this was Stevens Ink factory – then I realised that what I thought was beautiful railway architecture was in fact the remnants of the Victorian ink factory, and the little man said to me ‘It’s where Virginia and Vanessa and all their cronies got their scribbling ink for free’ because he thought their father owned the factory. The Woolfs’ father, of course, was Sir Leslie Stephen, the factory was actually owned by Dr Henry Stephens and then his son Henry Inky Stephens (see this website for more info). Then he disappeared. I never saw him again.”

No wonder Jack was entranced by Gillespie Park.

A plate made by Lucy Richards. (c) islington faces

================================================

Jack & Lucy’s favourite Islington places

  • Jack: “Everywhere of course! We love Chapel Market as it’s where we bought the things we didn’t have on the allotment. Also it’s pure Jane Jacobs (a thriving community), with little shops all along the street. If I need a battery watch, then I go to a tiny jewellers that’s been there apparently for three generations.
  • Lucy: I went to art classes and taught at what’s now City & Islington college on Blackstock Road. It’s a shame that they’ve closed the pottery and all the crafts. Jack:“It’s so bad they closed it. When I taught ceramic design, our students included some who had special needs but were often highly gifted craftspeople.”
  • Lucy:“Pottery is my craft, I trained with Robert Fournier first and then Daphne Carnegy. I can do everything at home except kiln firing but I prefer to work with other people. Because I’m moving to a tiny house I’m giving our pottery books to Claytime Pottery Studios at 168 Blackstock Road.”
  • Jack:“One of the things about this area is it’s so rich culturally. There’s such an ethnic mix on Blackstock Road. It’s amazing how the grocery shops have survived and Sainsbury’s has adjusted to the area so it’s like a local village shop. The micro economics of many small businesses enrich boroughs in big cities and provide a variety of services.
  • Jack:“Al Baraka has beautiful French bread and wonderful humous and lovely olives and much else to buy.
  • Jack: “We don’t eat out a lot, but when we do, we tend to go to that French restaurant, Sacre Coeur at 18 Theberton Street or to Lara in 16 Blackstock Road.

======================================

The old plastics factory, now converted into flats was painted by the artist and keen gardener Giles Winter (gouache, 2010). Jack Rickards: “Giles said he was doing a Jack – sketching the allotments. I felt very honoured.” (c) islington faces

“Lucy and I wanted a plot on the old Gillespie allotments, but we thought it was unlikely we’d get one. I was doing a painting of the gates, I thought of them as the gates of heaven, when allotment chief Jimmy O’Donald’s wife, Lil, saw me sketching. I asked her if there was any chance of getting an allotment. She asked me if I spoke Italian, saying ‘Our gardeners are Italian, from Naples, Sicily and north Italy, but they are land hungry and always quarrelling and fighting over the footpaths. Could you come to the AGM and translate?”

Luckily Jack did know some Italian, poured salve on to the allotment holders at the AGM and was introduced to a Jamaican man who said he was very happy for me to have a quarter of his allotment. Those old allotments had lovely soil so I immediately put plants in.”

Quill Street allotments opened with poor quality soil, but after nearly 20 years of compost, manure double dig (and no dig) they are a great place to garden. Jack read this passage when the local priests blessed the site from Isaiah 37:30 “And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that. Then in the third year sow and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit.” (c) islington faces

The Gillespie Park allotments were closed when British Rail, which owned the land, sold the freehold to Islington Council. The area was then dividedup between Gillespie Park, the Parkland Walk extension, Quill Street – the new social housing development – and 15 allotments. But it took a long time, and steady pressure by Jack and others, to get the new, much hillier allotment site opened. When it did the gardeners were bitterly disappointed to see that the imported soil was terrible and that there were electric cables trailing across the area to a house which had been squatted.

To celebrate the opening of the new allotments campaigners and the allotment holders held a blessing of the plots. Jack explains: “I’m not religious at all but Rev Steven Coles from St Thomas’ and Father George Haines blessed the land. I read from the Old Testament the bit about ‘grow your own’ in the book of Isaiah. It was so lovely it was positively pagan. Even though the imported soil was poor, within a few weeks there was manna from heaven in the form of chard which had somehow blown from the nearby Greek, Italian and Caribbean gardens and seeded itself.” And the gardeners worked hard to improve it too.  Jack claims he always remembers another plant gift from one of those early allotment holders, borage plants. “They reseeded and reseeded so we never had to sow them. I’d pick the blue flowers and put in ice cubes or use them in salads and I know the Italians would wilt the young Borage leaves and serve with pasta, but I never saw the seeds!”

Jack and Lucy are super skilled gardeners and found that N4 soil was particularly good for some crops: “We grew potatoes, onions, beans. Chard grows very well. Sorrel grows like a weed and yet it is delicious. Our sorrel is years old. I save seed and plant rows of it, it gets stronger every year.”

As for improving the soil at Quill Street, that has come about through the allotment holders enriching it with many back-breaking loads of manure and compost. Jack and Lucy’s plot is now a perfect growing mix.

During the early 2000s (the noughties) the Quill Street allotment holders generously shared their know-how and bounty at the annual Gillespie Festival (held on the second weekend of September for many years). They also produced a recipe book full of paintings and drawings which he modestly remembers as “a little allotment book to share recipes, Urban Fare.” Two recipes are reprinted here – sorrel soup from Jack and brambly jelly from Lucy.

“In the 1990s I was challenged to produce an exhibition of Rural Islington. I soon found an abundance of motifs to paint in Gillespie grasslands, Barnsbury (with its big squares and secret wood), the canal banks, Olden Gardens and so many green surprises to draw, paint and print,” remembers Jack. The selling show was at North Gallery, 96 Gillespie Road, managed by Ana, and saw many locals buy some of the green Islington scenes Jack captured with such character.

History repeats itself on the allotments: which is how Jack and Lucy have been assisted on their plot by their friend Sallie Aprahamian, who now co-directs Poldark– a lovely link to their new home in Cornwall.

It’s clear that many people will miss Jack and Lucy when they leave Islington. Islington Faces says thank you so much for all you’ve done for the area, and especially the campaign to get those allotments reopened. No wonder Jack is affectionately known as the king of the allotment – and Life President.

==================================

Brambly jelly (Lucy’s recipe)

  • 2lb blackberries
  • 2lb Bramley cook apples
  • Half pint water
  • Sugar as required

Method

  • Wash and drain blackberries
  • Wash apples and slice without peeling or coring them.
  • Put fruit and water in a large saucepan and cook gently until tender, stirring to a mushy consistency with a wooden spoon.
  • Strain through a muslin bag left to drip overnight into the pan you will be using to make the jelly.
  • Measure the juice and add 1lb of sugar to each pint of juice.
  • Add the sugar and simmer, stirring gently untl the sugar is all dissolved.
  • Boil rapidly without stirring until the juice wrinkles when you pour a spoonful on to a cold plate.
  • Skim off any impurities on the surface, then pot and seal.
  • Yield about 5lb.

Cook’s tips

  • Make sure you use a large saucepan for boiling the jelly as it rises to the top of the pan at a full rolling boil.
  • A knob of butter on the jelly before you ski it melts and sends the scum to the edge of the pan where it is easier to remove.
  • If you don’t have the odd yard or so of butter muslin to hand, a clean old pillowcase does the job.

Sorrel soup (Jack’s recipe)

The beauty of growing sorrel is that you can use it very fresh in salads and sauces as well as soup. This delicious summer soup, when sorrel is plentiful in our gardens (if difficult to find in shops) has a surprisingly refreshing yet warm flavour. The French call it health soup (potage santé) able to cure everything, even a broken heart. Try it!

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 and a half pounds potatoes
  • 8oz trimmed sorrel (stalks removed)
  • 6oz chopped white onions (or green tops of leeks or shallots)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons of olive or corn oil
  • 1oz butter
  • 1 and a half pints chicken or veg stock
  • Milk to taste
  • Seasoning to taste

Method

  • Peel and chop potatoes and keep in water to avoid discolouration
  • In a large saucepan melt the butter in the oil
  • Gently fry garlic, onions, leeks or shallots (or a combination of all three, why not?) until tender
  • Add the sorrel leaves and fry gently. They will turn into khaki coloured sludge but don’t lose heart, it all comes right in the end. Add the stock and potatoes and cook until potatoes are tender. Puree in a blender or rub through a sieve
  • Add milk to the consistency if you like, and season to taste.

Cook’s tips

Using the green parts of onions and leeks intensifies the colour of this soup

========================

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com. Thank you to Annie Monaghan for suggesting this interview. If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola